January 12, 2015

Turkish foreign minister distorts US State Department briefing

Turkey's top diplomat has misrepresented the facts about last week's US State Department briefing in which two US journalists pressed the department spokesperson, Jen Psaki, on Turkey's ties with Hamas.

Speaking to editors with the state-run Anadolu news agency on Monday, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu claimed that a Turkish reporter affiliated with the “parallel structure” posed a question to Psaki on Thursday deliberately hoping to place Turkey on a list of states that sponsor terrorism.

“Parallel structure” is a term invented by Turkey's embattled President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the aftermath of corruption scandals that implicated him and his family members, among others, in order to blame his troubles on alleged followers of Turkish-Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, who have supposedly infiltrated the state bureaucracy. The term was later expanded to describe not only the Gülen-inspired Hizmet movement, but all critics and opponents of Erdoğan's increasingly authoritarian regime.

Çavuşoğlu claimed that the parallel structure “has been intensively trying to have a resolution against Turkey [brought forward] in the US,” by claiming that Turkey sponsors terrorism. “Look at the question they asked on that day to the US State Department spokesperson. In fact, they asked what they wish to see [in her response] but they got their response. This is what their hearts desire,” Çavuşoğlu claimed.

On the one hand, it would seem that the foreign minister suggested that FOX News Channel chief Washington correspondent James Rosen and Associated Press diplomatic correspondent Matt Lee, who both asked Psaki about Turkey-Hamas ties, are members of the alleged parallel structure. Rosen asked whether the relations between Hamas, listed as terrorist organization by the US, and Turkey could potentially place Ankara on a US list of state sponsors of terror.

Or, it is also possible that the Turkish foreign minister was implying that the person(s) who asked the questions about Hamas belong to one of the media outlets in Turkey that are pro-Gülen. However, given that on Friday, Zaman, the best-selling newspaper in Turkey, ran a story on its website clearly stating that it was Rosen who asked the question at the US State Department briefing, rather than a Turkish reporter; this would seem to be implausible.

The transcript of the press briefing and a video recording posted on the State Department's website, clearly demonstrate that the first question on Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal's recent visit to Turkey was raised by Lee, who was followed by Rosen. Lee later pressed the spokesperson further with follow up questions.

When Rosen asked Psaki whether the terror group's relations with Turkey could potentially place Ankara on a US list of state sponsors of terror, Psaki said that Washington's position on Hamas has not changed and that it classified the Palestinian group as a "designated foreign terrorist organization that continues to engage in terrorist activity."

Psaki's remarks came after she was asked about a recent statement by Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu, who said Hamas leader Mashaal is welcome in Turkey whenever he wants to come.

Lee pressed further, noting that, “[Turkey] welcoming the leader of a group that [the US has] designated a foreign terrorist organization would certainly seem to be [an act of] supporting it.” Psaki's answer was limited to reaffirming Hamas' position as a designated terrorist organization and noting that the US had expressed concern over Ankara's relationship with Hamas.

Mashaal was recently in Turkey and was seen entering the Konya Municipality Sports and Congress Center hand-in-hand with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in a surprise appearance three weeks ago. The Hamas leader was welcomed with chants of “God is great” by members of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party).

In the meantime, the editor-in-chief of pro-government Sabah daily, Erdal Şafak, claimed that the person who asked the question to Psaki was from Cihan News Agency, the largest privately-funded news agency in Turkey, which is affiliated with the Hizmet movement. Şafak, wrote in his column on Sunday that he, among other journalists, met with President Erdoğan on Saturday, adding that close aides to Erdoğan considered the raising of the Hamas question at the briefing to be “treachery.”

On Monday, Çavuşoğlu also alleged that the “parallel structure” has been mobilized to “defame and humiliate” Turkey at every opportunity, including when it comes to Armenian claims of genocide at the hands of the late Ottoman Empire, which constitute a foreign policy headache for Turkey.

“The parallel structure is working against Turkey even on the Armenian issue. They cooperate with all elements who work against Turkey,” he said.

Turkey categorically denies claims that the mass killings of Armenians amounts to genocide, saying both the death toll given by Armenians -- 1.5 million Armenians -- is inflated and that people from both sides were killed because Armenians revolted against the Ottoman army in collaboration with the Russian forces that were then invading eastern Anatolia.

Published on Today's Zaman, 12 January 2015, Monday